OPINION: Speaking multiple languages should be a requirement, not a bonus

A person with a speech bubble floating above them. The speech bubble contains the word "hello" in over 15 different languages
Graphic by Annie Wu

From a young age, I’ve been learning foreign languages. I’d even say that one of my defining traits is my knowledge of them — I speak six. Truth be told, I’m only fluent in three, but I know the basics of the others. 

For me, it’s not even that impressive. Most of my friends from back home speak at least five or six. Imagine how powerful my language skills would be if high school teachers didn’t give me lifelong trauma.

Most of the languages I know are what many would call useless, but learning any foreign language makes one smarter, according to The New York Times. It improves cognitive skills that are unrelated to language-learning and even shields against old-age dementia. 

Not only does learning a language make one more respectful of other cultures, it also opens doors — social and professional — that otherwise would stay closed. Yet, many people still don’t see the opportunities that come with knowing several languages.

Both of my parents are from Finland, so naturally I grew up speaking Finnish. However, I am from Luxembourg, where no one besides my classmates and parents spoke Finnish (I attended the Finnish language section at a European School). I had to learn another language, and that language was English. 

The beginning was anything but easy, but I managed to pull through. The present me not only studies in English but here I am writing this article in English — a door that otherwise would’ve stayed closed had I not learned another language.

Besides English, I studied Swedish for my whole seven-year secondary school career. I dabbled in French. That didn’t go as hoped though, partially due to scary Belgian teachers. 

During my first year of university, I began learning Mandarin. There was really no particular reason for me to start learning it aside from pure interest. I had never studied a non-European language and it intrigued me.

Now at Pitzer College, I chose Korean as one of my electives. I had some basic knowledge of Korean but I needed to start from scratch with an actual teacher.

I cannot hold a conversation in Korean or Mandarin yet, but ever since I started learning those languages, in certain situations, I have understood more of the world around me. I have immersed myself in the cultures of said languages just like with Swedish and English when I was younger.

Yet, especially in English-speaking countries, learning a foreign language is overlooked.

While all of the undergraduate colleges recommend prospective students take at least two to three years of a foreign language in high school, none of them require it

Not only does a person who has studied a foreign language have the skill of speaking and writing that language, learning another language also improves one’s employability after college. If anything, language competency shows that a student is more than capable.

The 5Cs provide language classes from beginners to advanced. But only three of the five colleges, Scripps, Claremont McKenna and Pomona, require a foreign language requirement to graduate. Pitzer and Harvey Mudd see it only as a bonus, not a necessity.

This isn’t purely the case only in the 5Cs: Most elite colleges only recommend a language being taken in high school and only a few see a foreign language as mandatory for admission, according to College Transitions, a college planning website.

I am a huge advocate for learning languages, and I have already seen from personal experience that making the extra effort to learn foreign languages does take you somewhere. For me, that language might have been English. 

Not only will learning a foreign language make one literally smarter, but it also connects one with unexpected people and enhances one’s experience in this magical thing we call life.

Ottilia Nummelin is a Pitzer College exchange student who is a Finn from Luxembourg. She pretends to speak multiple languages and understand films without subtitles.

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